The book publishing process is notoriously complex and confusing. It's not helped by being littered with technical terms – many of which sound similar and so are easily mixed up.

To help you navigate the publishing process, I have written a brief guide to the key points in the publishing process. Starting with the manuscript, this little guide takes you through from the point where you, as an author, finish writing your book and begin the process of getting it edited and formatted for publication.

A guide to the book publishing process

The book publishing process has three distinct phases: editing, page make-up and proofreading. In truth, the editing and proofreading stages are often continuously repeated until the book is as error-free as possible. But these three activities define the end of one part of the process and signal the start of the next.

Of course, the book publishing process varies according to whether the book is digital or print (or both) and whether it is self-published or produced by a traditional publisher.

So, for example, a digital book does not require page make-up because a digital book has no pages as such. It's continuous stream of text that is chopped up on the screen of whichever e-reader is being used.

For this reason, there are many design and visual elements of a digital book that you cannot control, such as the size of the font, the font used and whether the text appears in colour or black and white. Also, digital books will often look slightly different depending on which e-reader or app is being used.

However, the page of a printed book is completely under the control of the publisher, which means there is more work involved in getting it to look right.


Phase 1 of the book publishing process: Editing

What is a manuscript?

The first stage in the book publishing process if planning and writing the content. This is the work that most self-publishing authors focus on. However, it's only a small part of the production process.

After this, the book is delivered by the author to the publisher (or editor). It is called the manuscript or typescript, which roughly means ‘hand-written script’. Before the advent of typewriters and computers, books were often hand-written by the author.

When authors began to deliver typed books, the ‘manuscript’ began to be referred to the ‘typescript’. However, in general, old habits die hard and publishers still refer to manuscripts rather than typescripts.

Whatever form it comes in, the book that the author delivers to the publisher (or editor) is the finished book that is ready to go through the publication process. The first stage is copy-editing.

What does a copy-editor do?

Copy-editing (sometimes referred to as line editing or content editing), is the first editorial stage the book goes through. It is the process by which glitches in structure, spelling, heading levels and much more is made consistent and clear by the editor so the reader can concentrate on the information in the book rather than how it is delivered.

The copy editor’s job is to polish the author’s work by checking details, establishing rules and styles, and adapting the structure (if necessary) so the book flows correctly and is easy for the reader to navigate and read. This part of the book publishing process is one that many self-publishers would like to avoid as it can be expensive.

However, a good editor can be the difference between an average and great book, so it's well worth finding a way of getting the funds together to get your book edited.

Phase 2 of the book publishing process: Page make-up

Getting to first page proofs

When the editing has been done and the author’s amendments have been agreed and added to the manuscript, the book is sent to the designer so he or she can design the text.

These days, the Word document is coded by the editor according to the designer’s templae (the design for most books is created and signed off before the manuscript arrives or while it is with the editor) and the Word document is then imported into a piece of publishing software called QuarkXpress so the designer can create the first page proofs. If the editor comes across a new type of text that needs to be designed, she makes a note of this to the designer so he can adjust his design accordingly.

First page proofs are printed out by the designer and sent to the editor and author (and a whole host of others in a publishing company) so they can check them. The ‘first pages’ stage is the starting point for the rest of the proof checks and amendments that happen to the book during the publication process.

Although your own book will probably not go through this exact publication process, you will effectively have a set of first page proofs when your editor has finished editing your book and has returned it to you for approval or for any final changes.

Phase 3 of the book publishing process: Proof-reading

The book publishing process is confusing!
The book publishing process is confusing!

This is a detailed check of the book to ensure that, in the process of making corrections and changes, no new mistakes have been made such as sections or paragraphs being accidentally deleted or moved or formatting errors introduced. The proof-reader will read the book line by line so they can see typing errors but at the same time, they will be checking sense and picking up other glitches.

Proof-readers often use a ruler or other blank piece of paper to isolate each line so their eye is not drawn forward too quickly, which would result in them getting distracted by the flow of the content rather than concentrating on details.

Check, correct, check again

Inputting corrections can be done by you, the author, or your editor. It needs to be done methodically and the corrections from everyone who reads the set of proofs you are correcting needs to be collated onto one master set of proofs. This way, if there are contradictory changes, these can be resolved before the inputting is done. It’s also easier and faster to work from one set of page proofs than two or more and this will save time and money in the long run.

Finishing touches

Front-matter (prelims) and end-matter

Front-matter and end-matter are added after the first pages proofs have been generated and before the book goes to ‘second page’ stage.

  • Front-matter includes the title page, copyright page, any dedication or other miscellaneous content.
  • The end-matter is most likely to consist of glossaries, case studies and sales pages. Other text that may be added when the page proofs are amended, include links and information about free material.

Clearly, a lot of work gets done at the first page proof stage, which is why it is important that the second pages are proof-read and checked again.

Other proofing stages

If you were to work with a traditional or professional publisher, you may well hear reference to ‘second pages' and ‘final pages'. As a self-publisher, these will probably be incorporated into your ‘check, correct, check again' sequence so you won't distinguish fully between one set of page proofs and another.

However, a publisher will have more defined sets of proofs, partly so the process can be properly managed and partly so the book gets finished. Otherwise, there is a danger that each book could go through endless proofing stages. If you ever hear the phrase ‘third pages' you'd know something had definitely gone wrong with a book!

Let's begin by looking at what happens with second page proofs.

Second page proofs

The second pages are created once the proof-reader and the author have both read the first pages and made corrections. The prelims (front-matter) and end-matter will have been added and all the corrections from the main proof-read will have been input into the master document.

At this point, a second set of page proofs is generated so the book can be checked again.

At the second page proof stage, it is the corrections that were added at the previous stage that are under the greatest scrutiny (to make sure they are right and no errors have been mistakenly added).

There will also be checks to the formatting (text styles, font sizes, heading styles etc.) and the newly added prelims and end-matter. Amendments are made to the electronic document (on-screen editing) and from these, the final pages proofs are generated.

How proofing works

As the book goes through the publication process, layers of errors are removed. As one layer of errors is dealt with so another seems to come to the fore. It is all part of the process because it is only once one set of distractions are removed that others become noticeable.

Also, errors can be accidentally generated during the publication process and it is important to make sure that what was right last time hasn’t suddenly become wrong. There can be no assumptions when checking proofs. Mistakes are rarely deliberate. After all, we're all human and the silliest errors can creep in when we're distracted or tired.

Final page proofs

The next stage in the publishing process is final pages.

At this point, the editor and author stand back and look at the book as a whole. The book is almost ready for publication, so the focus is on making sure there are no obvious errors.

This is really the sign-off stage. You are saying ‘yes, this is the version of my book I want the world to see’. When you think of it like that, you can pick up all sorts of little glitches – although changes at this stage are usually very few – around 5 or 10 at the most if the rest of the job has been done well.

If you send a book to an editor that has all the prelims, links back to your website, sales copy etc included you can effectively by-pass one whole proofing stage.

That said, I would recommend that you have the book checked by a proof-reader before you finally release it to the world. This is because we cannot see our own errors and as you and the editor have both made changes, it is as well to let a third person check your book in case you have missed anything.

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Deborah Taylor
Deborah Taylor

Hi, I'm Deborah Taylor and I'm a publishing consultant and book-writing mentor. I work with established business owners who want to share their message by writing a book but are struggling to get started (or finished). I help them write, publish and launch a stand-out, attention-grabbing book that will raise their profile, reach more of their ideal clients and grow their business. I am a trained editor with over 15 years' publishing experience with major blue-chip UK publishing companies such as Hodder & Stoughton, BBC Books, Cassell and Pearson. I have produced books on every subject under the sun and with professinals and experts from a wide range of professions, from chefs and gardeners to life coaches and career consultants. I would love to help you write a book you love and that will raise your profile, attract new clients and bring you exciting new business opportunities.